Call for Papers – Panel Proposal for ISA 2023

Politics of the Past, Promises of the Future

There is a growing scholarship in International Relations that examines the role of reconstructing memories and retelling certain narratives of the past in worldmaking. The goal of this panel is to bring together scholars who are thinking through questions probing the political manipulations of nostalgia and narratives of the past for the sake of shaping the future of global order. The panel will explore theoretically and empirically the processes through which reemerging as well as retrenching powers repackage historical narratives, invest in memorializing the past, and reconstruct political memory aiming to expand their influence. Potential themes of interest include but are not limited to: 

  • Thinking theoretically about the role of collective memory in identity-making
  • Theorizing positive and negative nostalgia in foreign policy making 
  • Exploring the intersection of foreign policy making and narratives of the past 
  • Illustrative case studies that show the strategic manipulation of the past in shaping global orders 

Panel discussant is Professor Jelena Subotić (

Please send an abstract of no more than 200 words to Lina Benabdallah ( by close of business day on May 25th. The formed panel will be shared with invited participants will by the 27th. 

Why soft power is not enough to explain scholarship investments in China-Africa relations (besides vague applications of the concept)

In a new United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Global Education Monitoring Report published this week, 16% of the total scholarships for Africans was sponsored by the Chinese government. The report states (on page 295) that “the Chinese government, through various agencies, was the single largest provider, with over 12,000 opportunities annually.” 

This is congruent with assessments that academics (here and here) have been making for a while now but puts into perspective, comparatively, where other countries stand. The report indicates (on page 279) that “the next largest government providers were South Africa, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Egypt, India, Germany and Japan.” 

I will note that the U.S. is terribly behind (fifth on the list of OECD countries which does not include many top scholarship funders), but that’s not the focus of this post. 

It is not surprising that the PRC is leading the way with scholarships for international students. Education diplomacy is an old tool in the norm-making, narrative-changing, and power-projecting toolkit (see Chapter 3), but understanding PRC’s increasing investments in scholarships sponsored for African students as a soft power cultivation measure is only a surface-level  reading. 

The Chinese Ministry of Education report on international students released broad statistics in 2019 which are very helpfully put together by Dr. Victoria Breeze in this table. The upward trend is clear when looking at the total column.

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Indeed, soft power can explain some of the objectives and returns on investments that the PRC stands to gain from its human capital investments in Africa (and elsewhere), but not all of them. Scholarship programs whether Fulbright, Schwarzman, Yenching academy or other public diplomacy initiatives seek winning hearts and minds (albeit via highly selective processes). Influence through positive perception and attraction (produced by living in, exploring, and learning about cultures, language, and societies) is often viewed as the link between study abroad programs and soft power. Attraction is important but there is a lot more going on in government-sponsored scholarships.  

Several beneficiaries of these scholarships, though of course not all, are either already government civil servants or potential candidates for government jobs when they return to their countries of origin. Testimonies from those who have attended school in China (in dozens of interviews I’ve conducted over the years or in posts like this one), suggest that both in the short and long-term, scholarship beneficiaries work to improve relations between their governments and China. Some of the concrete ways where this is observed is in helping with translating official communication and documents between relevant government agencies. In countries in Africa that are not Anglophone, for instance, communicating with Chinese counterparts can be massively complicated. Having civil servants with high level of proficiency in Mandarin can facilitate smoother communications and increase collaborations. 

Yet, as noted in the UN Global Education report, for these scholarships to turn into proper human capital investments, they have to translate into job access, income-earning positions, and overall lead to improving living conditions of their recipients. Although not systematic or without flaws, there are a few examples of more-or-less efficient mechanisms that connect graduates to hiring firms. Several Confucius Institutes based in Africa for example, have worked in synergy with Chinese state-owned enterprises locally based and coordinated job matching guanxi for the scholarship recipients who are not already government employed. 

For African students who study in China (whether on scholarship or not), student life (especially through joining African Student Clubs) provides a whole host of opportunities to not only go through the experience of studying in China together but also to keep abreast of the latest issues, opportunities, and current affairs across the continent. During the pandemic, actions and platforms of solidarity among African, African American, and Caribbean students emerged.

At the same time, however, the pandemic has had its fair share of negative influence on international student life in Chinese campuses and cities. Even though the PRC, unlike other states, has not demonstrated executive authority-driven hostility towards foreigners, the reputation of study abroad in China has been significantly impacted during COVID-19 lockdowns.

If anything, it is actually the soft power element of China’s scholarship and education diplomacy that’s actually at the highest risk of being negatively outweighed by the negative impacts of COVID-19 lockdowns. Images and accounts of African students facing lockdown challenges, racial discrimination, and dwindling food supplies have made rounds of social media across the continent and provoked mixed messages between sentiments of solidarity mixed with disdain and fear voiced by students’ parents, families, and netizens. The outcries by the stranded students to their government representatives in the continent to organize evacuation plans made the round of global news outlets as well (see herehere, and here).

Testimonies from African students stranded in China are of course diverse and not homogenous. Some have fluctuated between expressions of solidarity with China at the beginning of the outbreak and outright frustration with the maltreatment they experienced after that lockdown was lifted in many Chinese cities. Indeed, despite early on messages and acts expressing solidarity (see here and here), many stranded students (see for example) expressed sentiments suggesting deep wounds due to lived fears and challenges they faced living in China. Without serious repairs to the broken trust, such negative perceptions can easily trickle down to larger groups of young people who might have eyed studying abroad in China.  

The soft power of these scholarships has suffered a serious blow due to the pandemic, however, we continue to see the Chinese government promise more human capital investments, professionalization trainings, and exchanges (if via teleconference) even if travel logistics have possibly been hampered for the remainder of 2020. The reason that these investments are not going away in the China-Africa relations anytime soon is that they go much beyond soft power. The networking power (especially through alumni) as well as knowledge production and norm-diffusion opportunities that human capital investments produce stand to remain strong and vital to China-Africa relations. 

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#COVID19 and China-Africa solidarity considerations

A question that sparks curiosity when thinking about the place of COVID19 in China Africa relations is what might the lingering/long-term effects of the pandemic on the perceptions of China among Africans be. After giving it some thought, these are the main points that stand out to me.

CCP’s governance model and strong leadership on display. The CCP’s strong measures to restrict travel, minimize the impact of the outbreak, and prioritize health over economic growth will likely come back and be used in China’s rhetoric showing leadership strengths. Already there is an effort by the government to boast about the its capability to build hospitals in a record time. Certainly, once the outbreak is over (or least contained), we expect to see more assertiveness in marketing China’s governance model as evidenced in its reaction to COVID19.

Friendship and solidarity. In his keynote speech on China’s foreign policy at Chatham House, Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming repeatedly condemned racist and exclusionary reactions to COVID19. He stated that the right choice is “to pull together in the same direction” and treat the virus as the common enemy instead of talking about China as “the sick man of Asia.” We have long observed this pattern of rhetoric in China-Africa relations with China always working hard to distance itself from the “West” and identify with Africans as a fellow Global South states. Coronavirus adds a new opportunity to cement this divide and deepen friendship and solidarity bonds between China and African states.

Across Africa, we saw a wide social media campaign expressing solidarity with Wuhan and China more broadly. Students of Confucius Institutes, diplomats, embassy staff, business people from across the continent, and even parents of students who are stuck in China showed their support.

But COVID19 is not all good news for China-Africa relations. First, the many and enduring struggles of African students quarantined or stuck in China since the start of the outbreak of the Coronavirus have been well-documented. It is not hard to imagine that the suffering from such terrible experiences might result in many African students not wanting to study in China anymore. The stories that these students are sharing everyday with their friends and family back home describing life under quarantine might not exactly be soft power generating stories for China.

Second, we recall how the CCP repeatedly argued that the financial crisis of 2008 and its rippling effects on African economies meant that the Western model let Africans down and that there was a need to bring something new to the table (i.e. the Chinese alternative model). Now, we would be remiss not to wonder what’s in the future of Africa-China relations with COVID19 potentially causing a global economic crisis the depth of which is yet to be grasped? One thing that is certain is that the Chinese government is handling this crisis with what it knows to do best: putting personal connections and people-to-people relations at the center of this. We see Chinese diplomats holding forums with parents of students, talking to AU CDC, health ministers, holding press conferences to discuss reactions, providing financial aid to African students quarantined in China, etc. 

Chances are, as soon as Chinese factories are fully back up to speed with manufacturing masks, gloves, wipes, and other products necessary to handling COVID19, the CCP will capitalize on its production capacity. Both to make the case about its manufacturing strengths and also to gain leadership points for distributing products to areas in need. Countries that expressed solidarity with China in times of need will likely stand to be first to be compensated with a return in favor and solidarity from the Chinese government.

China-Africa and the South-South Human Rights Forum (SSHRF)

Beijing held the second edition of the South-South Human Rights Forum (SSHRF) in December 2019. What’s striking to most China-Africa observers is of course the similarities between this forum and what we have been observing from the many editions of FOCAC (Forum on China-Africa Cooperation). Whereas the first edition of the SSHRF mostly articulated the contours and critiques of Western notions of Human Rights, the main focus of the Second SSHRF was framing the debate on Human Rights around the Right of Development. Meaning putting the Right to social and economic development at the center of the concept of Human Rights and above political human rights.

Director of Political Affairs of Kenya’s Jubilee Party, Mr. Kadara Swaleh spoke with CGTN about his impressions from attending the Forum. Mr. Swaleh stated that there are many lessons for Kenya to learn from China’s development-centered Human Rights model. He also criticized the double standards of Western powers abusing Human Rights (of minority groups within and outside of their own societies) while calling out China on its human rights performance. Here is the full conversation (starting around minute 14).

Here is a quick overview of the African government official presence at the Forum. 27 government officials from 23 countries

Country Representation  
Burkina Faso Director General of Division of Promotion of Human Rights, Ministry of Human Rights and Civic Promotion
Republic of BurundiSpokesman for the President 
Cameroon  Director General of Department of Asian and Oceanian Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
CameroonMinisterial Representative of Ministry of Foreign Affairs
ChadDirector General for Department of Human Rights, Ministry of Justice and Human Rights
ComorosMember of National Human Rights Commission
Djibouti Commissary Reporter of National Human Rights Commission 
Democratic Republic of CongoFormer Chairperson of Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate
Ethiopia Director for China Affairs in Asia and Pacific Affairs Directorate General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
EritreaAmbassador of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Gabon Member of the National Committee of the Democratic PartyResearch Fellow of the Human Rights Directorate of the Ministry of Justice
Guinea Specialist of Human Rights Affairs, Director of Cabinet of Ministry of Mines and Geology
Kenya Director of Political Affairs, Jubilee Party of Kenya (The Ruling Party)
MoroccoSecretary of Foreign Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Mozambique Exec Dir Joaquim Chissano Foundation, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation
Senior Director of National Commission of Human RightsPresident of National Commission of Human Rights
Nigeria First Secretary of the International Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Republic of the Congo The Secretary General of the Cabinet of the 2nd Vice-President of the National Commission of the Human Rights
Sierra Leone Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission  
South AfricaConsultant of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Research Fellow of Stellenbosch University
South Sudan Director General of Human Rights Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation
Tanzania Tanzania Permanent Secretary General of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and East Africa CooperationFirst Secretary of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and East Africa 
TogoPresident of Human Rights Committee
Tunisia Vice President of the Tunisian Human Rights League 
Collected by author from this source:

There were also several academics from African institutions (from Tanzania, Kenya, Cameroon, Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia) and a few journalists/media experts invited. Delegations were taken around touring Shanghai and Hangzhou among other places. A practice we see in China-Africa professionalization training invitations. Showcasing China’s development success story is the best way to make the Chinese model attractive to visiting government elite delegations.

Michael Njunga Mulikita, Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Zambia’s Mulungushi University, expressed strong support of China-led “Right to Development” encouraging all African countries to create more synergies with China. 

Andrea Worden compiled a list of reactions/impressions of SSHRF participants on China’s leadership on human rights for the Global South as reported in Chinese Party-state media. See here for the article.

Whether CPC’s Forum Diplomacy choice as a medium for these conversations is about network-building, winning hearts and minds, some modality of power (soft, sharp, smart), home-based diplomacy (or a combination of all), two conclusions stand out. First, Forum Diplomacy has become a trademark of China’s foreign policy in the Global South. Second, the more Global North governments rush to have their version of Forum Diplomacy (with Africa, South America, or elsewhere) the more they prove to be socialized in China-led standard operating procedures for diplomacy, international development, etc.